My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, for allowing us to speak on this matter today. I have two interests to declare. First, I have a daughter who could inherit a title if the law was changed; and, secondly, my wife, the journalist Victoria Lambert, is a leading light in the group largely but not wholly made up of women who are campaigning for equality for women in the peerage and the baronetcy. They have called themselves the Hares after the comment made by the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, in April during Third Reading of the Succession to the Crown Bill. He said:
“This Bill has also set running the hare of what happens to the hereditary peerage with regard to the succession arrangements for hereditary Peers”.—[Hansard, 22/4/13; col. 1229.]
He is right: it has.
It will not be a surprise to many of your Lordships to hear that I am no great fan of the aristocratic system, male primogeniture of course being a component of that. Part of me thinks that perhaps what is required is more fundamental social reform in the interests of a more classless society than we have at present. Of course, I am not alone in this House in thinking that, even perhaps among hereditary Peers. But, and this is a big but, as long as the Queen and the Royal Family command such a central role in our society—the last Ipsos MORI poll in November of last year gave the monarchy a 79% popularity rating—this is not going to happen since the Royal Family is the core of the aristocratic system.
The public do a very good job of mentally separating the Royal Family from the rest of the aristocracy but that is not the reality, something which constitutional experts and republicans equally recognise. That is why I support equality for women in the peerage, however much the peerage itself represents an inequality within wider society—and perhaps arguably now not even the main one.
I feel that there are two principal arguments to be made. The most powerful argument is, as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, has said, that there should not be gender discrimination in Britain, full stop. The Equality Act 2006 created a public duty to promote equality on the ground of gender. Modern British law states clearly that men and women are equal in every aspect of life. Male primogeniture is the cornerstone of old-fashioned patriarchy. No duke or earl should consider that he is a special case; we are not. Gender equality should mean that you have the potential to inherit from birth regardless of gender, and that that should automatically come into effect as soon as the Bill becomes an Act so that a living heir of whatever age may inherit without any permission being necessary. The Bill would not be retrospective, as I think we all agree that no current substantive titles should be dispossessed. In these respects, the Bill before us today is perhaps a little too modest and could be simpler, because contrary to what some people have said, in principle this is not a complex issue. A single blanket law to cover all families is what is required.
The second argument I would make is that if the aristocracy remains at least socially, and indeed still to some extent politically, a significant source of influence in this country, it should be reformed just as its core part has been. It may be argued that that has happened so that the Royal Family has been brought more into the 21st century, but it is also true that the Royal Family and the aristocratic system as a whole should together be the best model of behaviour possible, giving the right signal to those non-aristocratic families who still believe that the eldest males ought to inherit the estate, whatever size it may be. There is no doubt, even in these generally more enlightened times, that this is still so.
Only two of the 92 hereditary seats in this House are held by women, a significant argument of course for removing the hereditaries, which will happen, whether in the longer or shorter term. Nevertheless, it is worth mentioning that campaigners have calculated that with a change in the law, if you go forward just one generation, there would be 41 men to 51 women occupying hereditary seats, a considerably better ratio indeed than either House has at present, or indeed for the conceivable future, and an effect that no doubt would be replicated throughout the aristocracy as a whole.
If this Bill were to be refined further, I think the Hares’ recommendation that one should not reach back more than one generation—that is, to the generation before the deceased—to find the next heir is a very good one. In this, I perhaps differ rather from the opinion of the noble Viscount, Lord Simon. It is unacceptable that some distant relative should inherit a title and an estate which that person had perhaps hardly known about let alone visited, displacing close family, as has indeed happened. In the memorable words of campaigner Liza Campbell, “No more cousins from Pluto”.
It is in these various ways that this issue is of greater significance for the public than many people realise. A call for a change in the law has wide cross-party support in both Houses. In May, Mary Macleod MP introduced a ten-minute rule Bill in the other place to remove male primogeniture. It is an issue that is not going to go away, and the Government would be wise to deal with it. Indeed, it has this year already generated a huge amount of coverage in the press, on the radio and television both here and abroad, including front page coverage in the New York Times. The issue has been championed by the Independent, the Daily Telegraph and the Sunday Times.
A number of potential beneficiaries of this change in the law have now written to the Crown Office stating their intention to take their cases to Strasbourg. I think that the Government should accept the underlying principle of this Bill or bring in their own legislation. After all, it is simply logical that what the Government have done quite rightly with the Succession to the Crown Bill were to be extended to the rest of the same system of which the Royal Family is a part.